Study suggests new regulations needed to govern nanotechnology risks

March 09, 2009

In order for the potential health risks associated with nanotechnology to be properly assessed, the current regulatory system in the US must be changed. That’s the conclusion of a new paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, by researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Minnesota.

Nanomaterials are designed at the molecular level to have special properties, such as enhanced heat conductivity or strength, that are very different from the bulk forms of the same material. Thus, they have many promising applications, from handheld electronic devices to drug delivery techniques. However, because of the tiny size and distinctive qualities of nanomaterials, concern exists about their potential to damage the environment and the human body.

“Nanomaterials are unregulated in the United States, even though they are being manufactured and used in literally hundreds of products,” says Prof. Milind Kandlikar, of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues and co-author of the new study. “What’s more, the current regulatory system for chemicals is broken. Most chemicals present in workplace and community environments have not been subjected to health and safety risk assessments. We run the risk of repeating this situation for nanomaterials if the same processes are used.”

The current regulatory system in the US places the burden for conducting risk assessments on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for occupational risks, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for non-occupational risks. However, these agencies do not have the budgetary means to adequately test nanomaterials. Nor do they have sufficient toxicity or exposure information from nanotechnology firms, since industry is not required to divulge this information.